March 4, 2021: This story has been updated with comments from restaurant operators.
The wave of cities and states loosening COVID-19 restrictions on businesses this week — including Texas, Chicago, San Francisco and Massachusetts — prompted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky to warn Americans Monday that there is still strong potential for a fourth wave of the virus, despite the fact that numbers of new cases have dropped by more than half since their peak in early January.
The group of cities and states starting to roll back restrictions includes Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott just announced that the state would be rolling back mandatory mask policies and getting rid of all dining capacity limits, effective March 10. Also this week, San Francisco reopened indoor dining to 25% capacity on Tuesday, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot announced indoor dining capacity would increase to 50% effective March 2, and Massachusetts has removed all indoor dining capacities starting March 1, Gov. Charlie Baker announced last Friday.
"Please hear me clearly," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a White House press conference on Monday. "At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained."
Speaking directly to states and cities that have rolled back restrictions, she added, “Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know could stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, not when we are so close.”
Other health experts agree. Diana Cervantes, an epidemiologist at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, told The Dallas Morning News, “We don’t want a spring break spike. Right now we’re at a critical cusp point where things could definitely turn around. It could either go up or down.”
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden called the decision for Texas and other locales to lift restrictions, “neanderthal thinking,” saying, “We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way in which we are able to get vaccines in people’s arms.”
But states like Texas believe it’s time to get back to as close as normal as possible, for the sake of economic recovery, with Abbott saying, “We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100%.”
While this is good news for the business community, some restaurants remain skeptical that it’s safe enough to roll back restrictions. Eater has compiled a list of 35+ restaurants statewide that have already committed to sticking with either mask restrictions and/or dining room capacity limits.
Other operators and chefs have expressed very strong opinions about Abbott’s plan, with chef Michael Fojtasek posting on his Instagram that “Reopening Texas without vaccinating hospitality workers is murder.”
Currently in Texas, frontline healthcare workers, people over 65, and those with a select list of co-morbidities can get vaccinated, but it is not certain when hospitality workers will join that list.
Rohini Dey, who owns Vermilion in Chicago also expressed concern over her employees coming to work without getting vaccinated. Chicago restaurant workers are currently on track to start getting vaccinated by the end of March.
"Our industry - NRA and SRAs - has to fight for our employees to be vaccinated as essential workers," Dey told Nation's Restaurant News. "Some states have done it, most haven't. We are essential - we apply the maximal safety precautions for people to get together without clustering in their own homes and causing unfettered irresponsible spread."
Dey added that she will be reopening her restaurant Friday "with great trepidation."
"75% of me doesn't want to do this because of the risk to our team and being a potential factor in spread," she said. "But a year of bills and only 20% revenues, escalating debt, two four month bouts of mandated and voluntary indoor closure and a decimated and unemployed team (starting from scratch again, it's killing us) has forced us into reopening."
Chef Tiffany Derry, owner of Roots Chicken Shak in Plano, Texas, tweeted her concern over enforcing mask mandates when the statewide restriction is lifted.
Derry expressed concern over choosing between her ethical stance on mask mandates and wanting to keep her business alive:
"Guests are now choosing which businesses to support based on their stance on the issue," she told NRN. "And myself and my employees are now responsible for enforcing our rules, which could cause conflict with guests who do not choose to wear masks. Without the mandate in place, we don’t have a place to turn for support when a guest conflict arises."
Derry said that she will continue enforcing mask mandates for her staff and strongly encourage customers to wear them, in large part because she is concerned not doing so can cause a fourth wave.
"I would like to see more planning and thought put behind these decisions, with consideration for how they will impact independent businesses—and put guidelines in place to support us," she said.
Here is a breakdown of all the most recent COVID-19 restrictions changes from other cities and states around the country:
- Arkansas — Gov. Asa Hutchinson rolled back most of the COVID-19 restrictions on businesses on Friday, including capacity limits for bars, restaurants, gyms and large venues. Hutchinson said that if positivity rates remain under 10% then he will also lift mask mandates on April 1.
- Chicago — Mayor Lori Lightfoot expanded restaurant and bars capacity to 50% or 50 people (whichever is fewer) on Tuesday, and bars are now allowed to stay open until 1 a.m. Previously, restaurants were open at 40% capacity and had to close at 11 p.m. Bars and restaurants can now sell alcohol two hours later until 11 p.m.
- Massachusetts — Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced the week of Feb 22 that the state was going to move into the second step of phase three, starting Monday. Restaurants no longer have a capacity limit and can now hold musical performances, while other venues with capacity limitations have been raised to 50%.
- Mississippi — Gov. Tate Reeves announced Tuesday in an executive order that he is lifting all capacity restrictions on businesses and rolling back mask mandates as well, and said that Mississippians are “encouraged” to wear masks and social distance, but no longer required by law. The only capacity restrictions remain in arenas and schools.
- San Francisco — San Francisco just moved up to the state’s red tier, where indoor dining can now resume at 25% capacity. Previously, no indoor dining had been allowed in most areas of the state. Mayor London Breed said that the city could move into the orange tier over the next few weeks if all goes well.
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